Nature is a common inspiration for all kinds of artists. There are so many wonderful shapes and colors found in the outdoors that speak to us, drawing on our ancestral roots and affectionate connection to the Earth. And nobody captures nature in art quite like Mary Ann of The Backyard Bear.
This shop features a variety of delightfully rustic objects, lovingly hand painted with images from the natural world. Oh Canada has put The Backyard Bear in the spotlight.
Oh Canada: Of all the things that you sell, which item or style is your favorite?
Mary Ann: It is hard to pick just one item as I put love into all of them but if I narrow it down it would have to be the chipmunk cedar box.
That poor little box was sitting in a 2nd hand store all water stained and musty smelling but it was still sturdy and had potential. I took it home, sanded it down inside and out, re-oiled the inside to give it back its original aroma and then painted a chipmunk on it.
Chipmunks love to stash things away and this little box which was once trash can now be used to stash items once again. Chipmunks and moose were the hardest creatures for me to paint but for some reason this little guy was just waiting to be brought to life. I’m really proud of that box and I’ll be sad when it sells but happy that the new owner will enjoy it.
Oh Canada: Where did you learn your skills?
Mary Ann: I’m self taught, although I have to add that my whole family is creative in some shape or form. My father was a builder, my mother could knit and crochet anything, my five brothers and sister have built, sketched and painted a few things in their life.
I think being the youngest and just too young to hang with my siblings and no one to play with, I took it to a whole new level to keep myself amused. I was a wildlife lover and when I wasn’t trying to find animal tracks and mold them with Plaster of Paris I was sketching birds and animals in the woods. I remember asking for a “John Naggy Learn to Draw” set for Christmas. It came with pencils, pastels, charcoal, sketching pad and a How To Draw book. I carried that set everywhere.
My mother would only use our old Singer sewing machine to mend, but once I was old enough she taught me how to use it and I started to make stuffed animals and Barbie doll clothes.
My father being a carpenter and me tagging along on his jobs taught me how to build a thing or two, and I would make bird houses and feeders in our boathouse out of scrap wood. I have the scars on my thumb to prove it!
My mother, to keep me busy, would give me old Sears or Eaton’s catalogues, egg cartons, jars and tins, worn clothing, anything she could find. She was from the old school where you didn’t go out to buy crafting materials, you made due with what you had. I tore apart many old dresses and jeans just to remake them into something else. I remember when I was 10, making a pair of bibbed hot pants out an old pair of pink pants when they were a craze in the 60’s. Therefore upcycling was normal in my family.
My wildlife painting started when my oldest brother bought me an oil paint-by-number set when I was around 7. It was a picture of two horses, and not having any patience I leaned that first painting over the hot air register to dry fast. When I came back to check on it my horse painting was abstract. After that episode I turned to watercolour.
I left all of my sketching and painting behind once I hit my teen years. I married young and raised two children with no time for hobbies. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago I started painting using acrylics. My boyfriend is an airbrush artist and watching him build and paint life like fishing lures took me back to when I would sketch and paint wildlife and I had the desire to paint again. My first painting was of my cat Marabou using driftwood as my canvas. I was quite pleased as it turned out better than I thought it would. After that painting I started painting fish on driftwood and then found other mediums to paint on, wood or metal boxes, jars, music sheets, etc. If it’s paintable I’ll paint on it.
Oh Canada: Everyone has different motivations for making their unique wares. What drives you to create?
Mary Ann: I’ve been creating art and upcycling since I can remember. Some people like to sit and read for hours, some people enjoy a cup of tea on the deck. Me… I enjoy painting and creating.
I get up in the morning and for an hour I paint something… a solar lantern, a magnet, fish on driftwood. I go to work and all day I’m thinking of what I want to make that night. It’s a great feeling to see an item that was someone’s trash made useful again and have another person purchase it from you because they love it.
We live in a throw-away society which is sad because it affects the environment, it affects our future. Our ancestors never threw away anything because everything old had a new use. Whether it be clothes turned into rugs, calendars into pictures, there was always something useful in an item. I try to be that person my ancestor was and I try to pass this on to my children as well.
Oh Canada: If you could learn to use any new technique or material, what would it be?
Mary Ann: I’m pretty content with what I’m doing now. I’m so busy upcycling items that I’ve purchased at yard sales that I don’t think I’d have time to learn a new technique…although I wouldn’t rule it out. I’m willing to teach myself if something catches my interest.
Oh Canada: Any plans to incorporate a new product into your shop this year?
Mary Ann: I’m hoping to get my birdhouses and birdfeeders in the shop. I’ve made a few out of old silver tea pots, garden tools etc. They take a little longer to make and the ones I have made have sold quick so they don’t get on Etsy.
Oh Canada: What is your favorite thing about selling on Etsy?
Mary Ann: I started selling on Etsy this year on Jan 2nd. I wish I had joined earlier, before Christmas as I missed out on those sales.
I originally started selling on Etsy to sell off items which didn’t sell at the couple of craft shows I did last year. Now I’m glad I did even if it’s only for the social aspect of the forums. I’ve met a lot of wonderful Canadians (even those that live a short distance from me) that have great talent and are in the same boat as I am. We work full time, craft at the kitchen table, we do it cause we love it and can’t get enough.
We motivate each other when sales are down and we critique each others wares and shops because we want to help. I’ve been on other forums where people can be nasty because they sit behind a computer, but the Oh Canada Team threads are purely inspirational.
On the sales side I love the extra money I can make for doing something I love. I use that extra cash as my Christmas money and this year I’ll be purchasing a lot of my gifts off of Etsy.
Oh Canada: Do you have a number one tip for new sellers?
Mary Ann: I have a few tips: Ask questions, chat on the forums and get your name out there. Make use of the Daily or Weekly challenge forum. The daily challenge alone has brought in more sales and hits on my shop. Have a theme to your shop to give it consistency.
Make sure to sell cheaper items in your shop to bring the customers in. I’m frugal myself and so I check the bargain rack and if I like what I see I’ll step to the back of the store and find the more expensive items. I think if you have more of a variety of prices and items in your shop you’ll get people like me who will go past that first page.
Don’t get discouraged if you’re not selling right away. There are people out there that don’t like what you have for sale, it’s not their thing, on the flip-side you’ll find buyers who just love it. It’s all personal.
Oh Canada: What is your favorite thing to buy on Etsy?
Mary Ann: For my vegan daughter’s birthday I purchased vegan soaps and even vegan deodorant. It was great that I was able to purchase these items off of Etsy, and I didn’t have to drive around or phone around looking to see who sells vegan soaps in my small town. I bought Canadian as well which is what I try to do. I actually bought from a couple of shops. Not only did I get her bath soaps but I bought pet shampoo and laundry soap - all vegan!
Oh Canada: What is the number one best item in your shop right now?
Mary Ann: Other than my upcycled chipmunk box I really like this Tic Tac Toe game – Lady Bugs and Bees.
I’ve also made checkerboard games with moose/bears and one with ducks on it. I see them being played on a porch at a cottage on a rainy afternoon.
You can catch up with Mary Ann and her latest inspirations on her blog The Backyard Bear Arts and Crafts Studio. To see more wonderful wildlife inspired designs, visit The Backyard Bear shop on Etsy.
Copyright 2010 Oh Canada and The Backyard Bear